Ha Long Bay independently
First published 27th November, 2009
There's been plenty of discussion about the best way to explore Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay, and Travel Fish's five-part series definitely examines the most common ways in excellent detail. However, if you're tired of pre-booked tours, cramped buses, and a stressful time-schedule, than travelling independently by bicycle is a truly relaxing way to experience the natural glory of Ha Long. Even still, surprises and mysterious conspiracies seem unavoidable, but being in control of your own destiny is very rewarding in and of itself.
Like every other approach to karst-viewing, the journey by bicycle begins in the hectic, cramped streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter. A slow pace is required to coexist with the constant traffic, and plenty of diligence is necessary to escape the insanity, but departing via the East Gate provides an excellent access point to north-eastern Vietnam. The immediate first task was crossing the Red River, but the conveniently located Long Bien Bridge solved that problem. Our plan was then to take Highway 5 east, until it intersected Highway 1 north. After asking numerous bystanders for directions we'd succeeded to navigate the two major highways, and despite the signs saying no bicycles, we proceeded past the long line of women selling fresh bread. Every 25 metres or so, for at least a kilometre, a bread saleswoman had a large basket set up, overflowing with fresh loaves, seemingly oblivious to the plethora of direct competition.
Twenty kilometres later, near the town of Bac Ninh, the real ride begins. Highway 18 east provides a direct link to Ha Long City, and is a relatively peaceful, well-paved, and flat ride throughout. The remaining kilometres pass by numerous towns, several of which have guesthouses on offer. The best choice, the town of Sau Do, 70km from Hanoi and 77km from Bai Chay -- the tourist-side of Ha Long City -- sits virtually at the halfway point.
Sau Do is a small town with little to offer, and the most affordable guesthouse (150,000 Dong) puts out the red-light as soon as darkness falls. But the people are kindly, the pho is tasty, and there's oddly also a Western-style fast-food restaurant on the main road that sells delicious fried-chicken sandwiches and french fries. For breakfast there's the cheapest egg baguette sandwiches in all of Vietnam, only 5,000 dong each, prepared by a friendly tip-refusing old woman in the town's main circle. Food aside, there's plenty of time to relax and read in your room, unless checking out a dodgy massage or an outright prostitute just next door, is more your style.
The next morning it's back on the road, though it really doesn't take long to do the ride on a mountain bike, as we managed to hit our fastest average speed ever, almost 25km/hr. So in theory the entire trip could be covered in one day, especially depending on your mode of transit. Obviously a rented scooter or motorbike would take no time at all, our weighed-down mountain bikes took between six and seven hours total each way, and if you decided to be brave and didn't carry much baggage, the entire journey could be conquered on a standard one-speed bicycle.
Our one error en route to Bai Chay's underwhelming touristic allure was a costly geographical mistake relating to Cat Ba Island. We knew it was near the mainland, so we took a bridge over to the first island we saw. We asked people about "Cat Ba" and they pointed over to the island, it looked similar enough to the map in our guidebook which also mentioned a new bridge was being built, and it was in close proximity to Ha Long Bay since we could see the outlines of some karsts in the haze.
An hour, a massive hill, and twelve kilometres later, we finally realised we were on Tuan Chau Island, home to an overpriced resort and little else -- especially once we met an English-speaking man on the pier (we'll call him Mr. X) who explained the ridiculous situation we'd just put ourselves in. This marked the beginning of a conspiracy: another man on a motorcycle -- Mr. Y -- had also been following us around, pointing towards Bai Chay and talking in limited English of tours and guesthouses -- we'd wisely ignored his sales-pitch, but were foolish in choosing not to listen to his general knowledge of the area.
Finally back on the correct path, with darkness arriving per usual, we approached Bai Chay, refuelled with some cold milk cartons, saw Mr. Y twice more keeping tabs on our whereabouts, and entered the competitive madness of Vuon Dao Street. Since most people come on packaged trips direct from Hanoi, the strip of cookie-cutter micro-hotels don't always see the number of customers you'd expect for such a famous destination, so the price-slashing was fierce.
We opted to avoid the cheapest and grimiest place though their low bid of only 80,000 dong/room was tempting, but as we were heading to Laos overland we knew we'd be staying in plenty of grimy hotels in the near future. For $15 we got two clean rooms, with Wi-Fi, hot-water, air-con, TV, and all the other typical Vietnamese amenities: a drain-plug that didn't work and beds that varied in comfort.
As we headed downstairs to go out for dinner, who appeared but Mr. X, ready to sell us a boat trip with Paradise Tours: $60 for two days/one night or $35 for only one day, both prices non-negotiable. Needing some time to think, we filled up on fresh seafood, and then unsuccessfully searched for a travel agency. Apparently Bai Chay has few of the bucket-shop variety, even though they're everywhere in Hanoi. Strange.
We did manage to find one shop near the water, with prices for the same trips for $35 and $12 respectively, but they didn't want to sell them to us because the cell phone costs for an English translator were too high, even though the man on the phone said it would be no problem. We searched for more alternatives, failed, and finally returned there, forcing an answer out of a breast-feeding employee, who said we could return at noon the next day to join a tour coming from Hanoi. While noon seemed rather late, at least we'd gotten some semblance of an answer, but we still planned on checking out the pier the next morning.
That's exactly what we did, easily managing to line up a private tour for $15 each, an extra $3 seemed like money well-spent to enjoy the bay on our own. But we needed to eat first, so we told the man we'd return in an hour. Of course when we came back, he was gone. Back to square one, we hurried to the "come at noon" shop, but even though it was noon no one was there -- except Mr. X, now happy to represent the cheaper option, though it turned out to be no longer available. Strange.
We headed off in the other direction, since we'd seen some boats docked there while hanging out on the other pier, and within a few minutes had entered negotiations for a private cruise. We hadn't yet got to price, but the family seemed friendly and enthusiastic, until someone (maybe even Mr. Y?) pulled up and parked a bit away on a motorcycle. Suddenly all they could say was "sorry" before retreating back to their boat to hide from us. Two minutes later, guess who appeared?
Mr. X came to the rescue -- how convenient -- and a different boat was just about to leave for Cat Ba island, so we could stow on-board, top-deck only, for 220,000 Dong each. Feeling we had little choice since time was slipping away from us, and that we'd evidently been claimed by him in some conspiratorial tourist game, we shaved 20,000 Dong off the price, handed over the cash, and hopped on-board literally as the junk untied its ropes and headed off into the bay. So we did effectively get our private-tour wish, and at $11 the cost was unbeatable, but we couldn't help feeling a little suspicious of the whole situation.
The one table on the top deck was ours so we couldn't interact with anyone else, the crew was friendly and shared shots of their banana-moonshine with us, and since the real paying customers -- all three of them -- just wanted to get to Cat Ba in a hurry, we had the whole second half of the journey to bask in the glory of Ha Long Bay alone. If we ignored the hordes of other tourist junks all around that is, which was fortunately far from a problem.
Though Vietnam may indulge in a bit of over-promotion -- with just a hint of a racketeering -- even with floating garbage and slightly oily waters Ha Long Bay is quite worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage designation. It showcases a unique combination of natural beauty and traditional life, truly a place of one thousand postcards.
The four hours of camera-clicking passed quickly, during which we visited a so-called floating village: a collection of a few houses, a small fish farm, and several young women on boats selling fruit. We could have taken a boat or kayak through a limestone cave ($5), or we could have visited Dragon Cave (20,000 Dong), but we passed on both those "opportunities" since we just wanted to enjoy the scenery. There must be something about a cycling trip that really makes "enjoying the scenery" the most desirable option, or perhaps traveller's malaise is subtly creeping up on us...
Back on our bicycles, the urbanity flew by a little quicker on our return journey to Hanoi, the people of Sao Do were a little less surprised by the cycling whities the second time around, and retracing our route into the Old Quarter didn't even require us to ask directions! If you'd like to travel truly independently, but aren't sure if you're ready to make a long-term commitment, then the challenge of Ha Long Bay by bicycle is perfect. A decent amount of exercise, a little adventure, a touch of intrigue, delicious food, and some fantastic natural beauty are all lying in wait, all that's missing is you, the daring adventurer!
We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every week for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.
Story by Anderson Muth
Related readingAn introduction
24 hours in Bangkok
Muay Thai night
Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
An Angkor cycling guide
Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
Cycles of all sorts
The hills of Vietnam
Read 4 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (18)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (19)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (83)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The changing face of Ko Lipe
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (38)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Budget Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- DIY Ha Long Bay
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Mid-range Ha Long Bay
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which Ha Long Bay tour is right for you?
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (22)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (17)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.